In the previous section, I looked at how House Gardener responded to the Andal Invasion of the Reach through a masterful use of assimilation that resulted in a cultural and political regeneration that made the Reach one of the leading contenders in the Great Game of Westeros…
The Fall of House Gardener
When Aegon Targaryen raised his banners on top of the hillfort that would later become the Red Keep, no one realized that the Great Game had ended. Indeed, King Mern IX’s initial reaction to this new contestant was wholly within the traditions of the Game:
“In the west, King Mern of the Reach rode the Ocean Road north to Casterly Rock to meet with King Loren of House Lannister…With both the riverlands and stormlands now under the control of Aegon the Dragon and his allies, the remaining kings of Westeros saw plainly that their own turns were coming. .. the two great western kings had made common cause and assembled their own armies, intent on putting an end to Aegon for good and all.
From Highgarden marched Mern IX of House Gardener, King of the Reach, with a mighty host. Beneath the walls of Castle Goldengrove, seat of House Rowan, he met Loren I Lannister, King of the Rock, leading his own host down from the westerlands. Together the two kings commanded the mightiest host ever seen in Westeros: an army fifty-five thousand strong, including some six hundred lords great and small and more than five thousand mounted knights. “Our iron fist,” boasted King Mern. His four sons rode beside him, and both of his young grandsons attended him as squires.” (WOIAF)
As we’ve seen before, one of the foundational rules of the Great Game is that you gang up on whoever seems to be about to win. And here Aegon Targaryen had snapped up the future-Crownlands, the Riverlands, and the Stormlands in less than a year, recreating the empire of Arlan III. And so the mighty Kings of the West allied against him – but there’s something strange about their alliance. While GRRM is notoriously bad with numbers, the full strength of the Rock and the Reach together should have added up to 145,000 men, with around 48,000 knights – suggesting that only 40% of their total strength, and a mere 10% of their precious knights were committed to the fight. One possible explanation here is that, the Lannisters and Gardeners didn’t in fact mobilize the whole of their strength for the fight against the Targaryens, as they needed to keep back men to guard their respective borders from any attempt of one party to stab the other in the back. (This still doesn’t explain the “the mightiest host ever seen in Westeros” line, however.)
Chroniclers with poor math skills aside, House Gardener seems to have committed itself politically to being the senior partner in the alliance: Mern IX brought 33,000 men to Loren I’s 22,000 in order so that he could get away with “demand[ing] the honor of commanding the center. His son and heir, Edmund, was given the vanguard.” Loren I was demoted to commanding the right wing on par with Lord Oakheart’s command of the left. Likewise, Mern IX’s decision to bring his entire family, from his “four sons” to “both of his young grandsons” to his “brothers, cousins, and other kin,” and the entirety of the Order of the Green Hand, speaks to a total commitment by House Gardener to the fight against the Targaryen invaders. Needless to say, this political statement was to have historical consequences for the whole of the Reach.
And so the stage was set for the Field of Fire. And although this battle is one of, if not the most important battles when it comes to the foundation of the Targaryen monarchy, it’s surprisingly how many questions remain about what actually happened. Some things aren’t in dispute:
“[Aegon] commanded only a fifth as many men as the two kings, and much of his strength was made up of men sworn to the riverlords, whose loyalty to House Targaryen was of recent vintage and untested.
The two armies came together amongst the wide, open plains south of the Blackwater, near to where the Goldroad would run one day. The two kings rejoiced when their scouts returned to them to report Targaryen numbers and dispositions. They had five men for every one of Aegon’s, it seemed, and the disparity in lords and knights was even greater. And the land was wide and open, all grass and wheat as far as the eye could see, ideal for heavy horse. Aegon Targaryen did not command the high ground, as Orys Baratheon had at the Last Storm; the ground was firm, not muddy. Nor were they troubled by rain. The day was cloudless, though windy. There had been no rain for more than a fortnight.
With no natural barriers to anchor the Targaryen line, the two kings meant to sweep around Aegon on both flanks, then take him in the rear, whilst their “iron fist,” a great wedge of armored knights and high lords, smashed through Aegon’s center.
Aegon Targaryen drew his own men up in a rough crescent bristling with spears and pikes, with archers and crossbowmen just behind and light cavalry on either flank. He gave command of his host to Jon Mooton, Lord of Maidenpool, one of the first foes to come over to his cause. The king himself intended to do his fighting from the sky, beside his queens. Aegon had noted the absence of rain as well; the grass and wheat that surrounded the armies was tall and ripe for harvest … and very dry.” (WOIAF)
From a Doylist standpoint, you can see GRRM designing a battle which would simultaneously encourage an all-cavalry army to commit to an aggressive strategy while allowing Aegon’s dragons to be the dominant, conclusive force on the battlefield: Aegon is outnumbered (although it’s slightly odd that he could only pull together 10,000 men given that the Crownlands, Riverlands, and Stormlands can field at least 60,000 men between them), the terrain is ideal for cavalry, and the dry grass and wheat are ready like so much wildfire to bring the battle its central focus.
At the same time, there is a troubling lack of clarity about what actually happened when the Kings of the West actually executed their strategy – for one thing, the text is unclear as to whether the plan to “sweep around Aegon on both flanks” actually happened, as the only action described is the charge at the center. But even more unclear as to what happened when that charge at the center took place. In some versions, the charge hits home and the Targaryen infantry is scattered:
“The Targaryens waited until the two kings sounded their trumpets and started forward beneath a sea of banners. King Mern himself led the charge against the center on his golden stallion, his son Gawen beside him with his banner, a great green hand upon a field of white. Roaring and screaming, urged on by horns and drums, the Gardeners and Lannisters charged through a storm of arrows down onto their foes, sweeping aside the Targaryen spearmen, shattering their ranks.” (WOIAF)
“When the Two Kings charged, the Targaryen army shivered and shattered and began to run. For a few moments, the chroniclers wrote, the conquest was at an end.” (AGOT)
And yet in other versions – or even different parts of the same narrative – of the narrative, the Targaryen army actually holds its ground, as “Lord Mooton’s men, safely upwind of the conflagration, waited with their bows and spears and made short work of the burned and burning men who came staggering from the inferno.” (WOIAF) There are two ways I see to reconcile these two pieces of information: one possibility is that the Targaryen infantry really did break, and that the reports that the “the Targaryens lost fewer than a hundred men” are mere propaganda meant to paper over Lord Mooton’s failure. (It’s highly unlikely that an infantry force that breaks under a cavalry charge would suffer a less than 1% casualty rate.)
After all, House Targaryen’s military forces had suffered more than a few embarrassments during the Conquest – Orys Baratheon getting ambushed when he crossed the Wendwater, Daemon Velaryon’s disastrous engagement off Gulltown, the Battle of the Wailing Willows, the failure of Orys’ center at the Last Storm – and arguably only the three dragons had allowed House Targaryen to achieve ultimate victory in each of their major battles against the Hoares, the Durrandons, and the Arryns. The patrons of the chroniclers may have decided that it would be impolitic to tarnish Aegon’s great victory with the defeat of his army. Another possibility is that the collapse of the Targaryen center was a feigned rout (link), intended to draw the enemy inwards while surrounding them on the flanks. I find this latter explanation less likely, given that this would draw the enemy away from the dragonflames carefully set downwind of the Targaryen infantry.
But regardless of how close Mern IX might have come to eking out some kind of victory, the Field of Fire would be the burial not only of his hopes, but of his entire House:
“More than four thousand men died in the flames. Another thousand perished from sword and spears and arrows. Tens of thousands suffered burns, some so bad that they remained scarred for life. King Mern IX was amongst the dead, together with his sons, grandsons, brothers, cousins, and other kin. One nephew survived for three days. When he died of his burns, House Gardener died with him.”(WOIAF)
Because of Mern’s desire for glory, House Gardener experienced a fate that, other than them, only the Hoares shared – total extinction, with the whole of the male line perishing in a single conflict. It is hard to explain how momentous this was: House Gardener had created the Reach as an idea and ruled over its ever-expanding borders for the whole of recorded history. The sense of chaos, uncertainty, and alienation that the political class of the Reach must have felt can only be compared to the people of the North following the fall of the Starks. And so it is highly surprising that the Reach did not fall apart and remained intact as a political entity for the next three hundred years.
A Disputed Succession
It is here that Garth Greenhand’s legendary commitment to sowing his wild oats may have saved the Reach, because rather than each fiefdom going its own separate ways, the most powerful lords were all potential claimants to Highgarden itself and so preferred lawsuits to independence:
“Afterward, a number of the other great houses of the Reach complained bitterly about being made vassals of an “upjumped steward” and insisted that their own blood was far nobler than that of the Tyrells. It cannot be denied that the Oakhearts of Old Oak, the Florents of Brightwater Keep, the Rowans of Goldengrove, the Peakes of Starpike, and the Redwynes of the Arbor all had older and more distinguished lineages than the Tyrells, and closer blood ties to House Gardener as well. Their protests were of no avail, however … mayhaps in part because all these houses had taken up arms against Aegon and his sisters on the Field of Fire, whereas the Tyrells had not.” (WOIAF)
In other words, 40% of the principal Houses of the Reach made a formal, legal claim for Highgarden against their overlords, which is a high bar for any new liege lord to overcome. (Interestingly, House Hightower is not mentioned as one of the claimants, which is surprising given that they are clearly the oldest house remaining in the Reach, they have clear blood ties to House Gardener in both the male and female line, and they didn’t fight Aegon at the Field of Fire.)
Luckily for Harlan Tyrell, he was holding a rather significant legal trump card – a direct grant from the new King of Westeros. Because Harlan “Tyrell yielded up the keys to the castle without a fight and pledged his support to the conquering king,” Aegon had “granted him Highgarden and all its domains, naming him Warden of the South and Lord Paramount of the Mander, and giving him dominion over all House Gardener’s former vassals.” (WOIAF) This grant of land (“Highgarden and all its domains”), lordship (“dominion over all House Gardener’s former vassals”), and royal title (“Warden of the South and Lord Paramount”) made it quite clear that Aegon the Conqueror himself had stated quite clearly who the rightful heir to the Gardeners was. This gave the Tyrells something of an advantage compared to the Tullys (link): by making their feudal bargain with the Targaryens at the same time that they rendered service instead of after, they ensured that they were given the “high seat” so that they could actually exercise authority over their realm, as well as additional royal rewards (notably no Tully was made a Warden).
At the same time, Aegon’s settlement was only ironclad as long as Aegon himself was alive – just as the Tullys found themselves challenged by Red Harren and other rebels, Harlan Tyrell’s heir found it necessary to turn “his attention to consolidating Tyrell power by arranging a council of septons and maesters to examine and finally dismiss some of the more persistent of the claims to Highgarden by those who insisted that the seat was theirs.” (WOIAF) This suggests that the legal case between the Florents et al. and the Tyrells was still ongoing a generation later, and that it was destabilizing enough to “Tyrell power” to require a significant expenditure of “soft power,” in this case by turning to both the Faith of the Seven and the Citadel of the Maesters to provide a legitimizing and justifying authority to buttress House Tyrell’s own. As we’ll see later, despite this appeal to both faith and reason, several of the litigants remained unreconciled to the point of creating major political divisions for the next three hundred years.
House Tyrell under the Dragons
But if the Reach was not completely reconciled to the rule of House Tyrell by the magic of that Targaryen name, the Tyrells did have another option to mobilize their kingdom behind a common project, and thus indirectly bolster their rule: anti-Dornish nationalism. The First Dornish War had enormous potential for House Tyrell: not only could the Tyrells harness the ancient grudges against the Dornish held by all Reachermen to get their bannermen to follow them, but also as the Warden of the South, Harlan Tyrell was one of the major leaders in the war effort (second only to Aegon and his Queens and the Lord Hand Orys Baratheon) and thus at the front of the line for lands and loot.
Unfortunately for Harlan Tyrell, the conquest of Dorne would not be an easy conquest, and in the grueling campaign to come, Reachermen would be called upon to do the bulk of the fighting:
“Aegon and Lord Tyrell warred in the Prince’s Pass against the mountain lords. The Dornish defenders harried and ambushed the Targaryen forces, then would scamper beneath their rocks as soon as they saw the dragons take flight. Many of Lord Tyrell’s men died of sun and thirst as they marched on Hellholt. Those who survived to reach the castle found it empty, the Ullers all fled.”
“Queen Rhaenys and King Aegon gathered what courtiers and functionaries remained and declared themselves the victors, placing Dorne under the rule of the Iron Throne. Leaving Lord Rosby to hold Sunspear and Lord Tyrell in charge of a host to put down any revolts, the Targaryens returned to King’s Landing on the backs of their dragons. Yet they had hardly set foot in the royal city than Dorne rebelled against them… Setting out with his garrison at Hellholt to conquer Vaith and retake Sunspear, Lord Harlan Tyrell and his entire army vanished in the sands, never to be heard from again. The reports of travelers in the area claim that occasionally the winds shift the sands to reveal bones and pieces of armor, but the sandy Dornishmen who wander the deep desert say that the sands are the burial grounds of thousands of years of battles, and the bones might be from any time.” (WOIAF)
Far from finding gold or glory or land in Dorne, all that the Reachermen found in Dorne was death – first through guerilla warfare in the Prince’s Pass, then through dehydration and exposure in the death march from the pass through the desert to Hellholt, and then by ambush in the march to retake Sunspear. Nor could they be sure that their loved ones would be safe, as “Ser Joffrey Dayne marched to the very walls of Oldtown, razing the fields and villages outside it,” and the Wyl of Wyl managed to raid all the way up to Old Oak. Their only consolation is that Harlan Tyrell, that “capable steward,” ended his life alongside his men, and only got to enjoy his lordship for five years.
A hundred and fifty years later, another Lord Tyrell would follow in Harlan’s footsteps, as Lyonel Tyrell parlayed his Wardenship into a position close to Daeron I during his campaign to conquer Dorne. Once again, the Tyrells would be called upon to provide the bulk of the Targaryen land forces, as “Daeron divided his host into three forces: one led by Lord Tyrell” who “[led] the main thrust over the Prince’s Pass.” This time, unlike his ancestor (who led the Targaryen armies in Dorne while Lord Rosby was made Warden of the Sands and Castellan of Sunspear), Lyonel gained mightily from his service:
“Yet by 159 AC the hinterlands were pacified, and the Young Dragon was free to return in triumph to King’s Landing, leaving Lord Tyrell in Dorne to keep the peace…” “(WOIAF)
“When the Young Dragon conquered Dorne so long ago, he left the Lord of Highgarden to rule us after the Submission of Sunspear. This Tyrell moved with his tail from keep to keep, chasing rebels and making certain that our knees stayed bent. He would arrive in force, take a castle for his own, stay a moon’s turn, and ride on to the next castle. It was his custom to turn the lords out of their own chambers and take their beds for himself.” (ASOS, Tyrion IX)
But just as Harlan’s service in Dorne ended poorly, Lyonel found that, in gaining the lordship of all of Dorne, he had bitten off more than he could chew. As he “valiantly attempted to quell the fires of rebellion, traveling from castle to castle with each turn of the moon—punishing any supporters of the rebels with the noose, burning down the villages that harbored the outlaws,” he found himself mired in a quagmire of guerilla warfare against an enemy who could not be treated with nor brought to surrender. And so, one night, Lyonel’s enjoyment of the “perks” of rulership led to him sleeping in a bed of red scorpions and the death of tens of thousands of Reachermen. And just as the First Dornish War hardened many hearts against the Dornish, Daeron’s Conquest would influence Reach politics for generations to come .
Given the long and ignominious record of disaster, anti-Dornish nationalism proved to be a dead-end for uniting the Reach behind the rule of House Tyrell or for gaining royal favor in the long-term. Instead, the Reach would divide badly during the major civil wars that rocked the Targaryen monarchy, with the choosing of sides often acting as a proxy for ongoing conflicts over House Tyrell’s rule. In the lead-up to the Dance of the Dragons (link), we can see a clear case of the Hightowers becoming overmighty vassals: despite Matthos Tyrell bringing “five hundred in his retinue” to the Great Council of 101 in an attempt to exercise national influence, it was the Hightowers who benefited by taking the Handship and Viserys I’s hand in marriage, forming the foundation and leadership of the Green faction at court. Thus, while Matthos’ untimely death meant that the Tyrells “played no part in the Dance of the Dragons, as the young Lord Tyrell was at the time a babe in swaddling clothes, and his mother and castellan chose to keep Highgarden out of that dreadful, fratricidal bloodbath,” the rest of the Reach would not be so lucky. The Hightowers, Peakes, Roxtons, Fossoways, and Redwynes would fight for the Greens, while the Beesburys, Caswells, Costaynes, Rowans, and Tarlys would fight for the Blacks, clashing at the Battle of the Honeywine, and at First and Second Tumbleton. While not devastated as badly as the Riverlands, the Reach would see one of its few cities destroyed, with “thousands burned, thousands more drowned attempting to swim across the river to safety,” (WOIAF) and the survivors put to the sword or worse by their fellow Reachermen. No wonder that, a generation later, Tyrells would need a foreign war to unite his kingdom.
Likewise, the Reach would prove to be the heart of Daemon Blackfyre’s support during the First Blackfyre Rebellion. Due in part to Aegon IV’s revival of the Dornish Wars – or more precisely, by the sudden U-Turn from Aegon IV’s war policy to Daeron II’s peace policy – and due in part to Daemon Blackfyre’s personal exemplification of the knightly ideal, twelve Houses of the Reach would rebel openly against the Iron Throne, with another three dividing their support between the Blacks and the Reds. Worth noting is that, of those houses who sided either wholly or partly with the Blackfyres were several of the original litigants who had challenged House Tyrell’s succession to Highgarden, including the ambitious and disruptive House Peake and the venerable House Oakheart. And while it remains speculation that their motivation for siding with the Black Dragon was in the hope that a new king might reverse Aegon’s donation of Highgarden, it would fit the larger pattern of ambitious second Houses supporting the Black Dragon while their Lords Paramount supported the Red.
At the same time, the Blackfyre Rebellion marked an interesting moment in the history of House Tyrell: despite such widespread disloyalty in his own backyard, the celebrated warrior Luthor Tyrell took no action (or was unable to take any action) against his bannermen until after the Battle of Redgrass Field had sent the Blackfyre army scattering for their homes:
“Lord Leo also won distinction during the First Blackfyre Rebellion, winning notable victories against Daemon Blackfyre’s adherents in the Reach, though his forces were unable to gather quickly enough to arrive in time for the Battle of the Redgrass Field.” (WOIAF)
Whether Leo Longthorn’s dilatory behavior during the First Blackfyre Rebellion was due to a cautious desire to prevent his overthrow by his subjects or perhaps even secret negotiations with Daemon Blackfyre to avoid this fate, it is “notable” indeed that Leo’s major victories were against his own rebellious bannermen, at a time when he could most easily achieve a victory against them, and thereby cut down his “over-mighty” subjects down to size. Thus, the period after 196 AC may have seen a gradual increase in Tyrell power vis-à-vis their subjects, which could well explain why Aegon V was looking to marry into House Tyrell in order to pursue his reform agenda.
Certainly, between 240 AC and 270, we can see the Tyrells re-orientating their long-term political strategy through a series of dynastic marriages (link) that sought to re-knit the bonds of interest and affinity between House Tyrell and their subjects: first, Luthor Tyrell was wed to Olenna Redwyne, then his son Mace was wed to Alerie Hightower, his daughter Janna into House Fossoway, and his daughter Mina to Olenna’s nephew Paxter Redwyne. (At the same time, the Redwynes and Hightowers were then married into House Rowan, bringing that House into the fold albeit more loosely.) Each of those Houses were either former litigants with a claim on Highgarden (thus consolidating their claims with House Tyrell’s) or had supported fully or partly the Blackfyres (thus helping to heal any remaining wounds from the Blackfyre Rebellions). Thus, over the course of a generation, the Tyrells gradually built up the political credit they would need for Mace’s Gambit with Renly and Margaery to have even a hope of succeeding.
As we have seen throughout this essay, the Reach’s abundance has not meant that it has been free of internal strife – indeed, the mere fact of that abundance has historically meant that there was more to fight over and more people who wanted to fight over it. However, we have seen that the Reach has handled its divisions differently than other regions, allowing it to contain (if not entirely eliminate) these conflicts more effectively than, say the Brackens and the Blackwoods.
The first case we have to deal with is the Peakes and the Manderlys, a conflict which stretches back to the pre-Andal era when “Gwayne the Fat persuaded Lord Peake and Lord Manderly to accept his judgment on their quarrel.” (WOIAF) Given that their feud was already well-entrenched by the time of one of the earlier successors to Garth the Gardener, the Peake-Manderly feud might well pre-date that of the Brackens and Blackwoods. But unlike their more northerly parallels, the Peakes and Manderlys didn’t actively destabilize their kingdom, largely due to the superior state-development of the Gardeners who had constructed a monarchy that could effectively deter both parties. The one major exception to this long period of peace was during the reign of Garth X, when “Lord Peake had married one of his daughters, Lord Manderly another, and each was determined that his wife should succeed.” Even this civil war was due more to the personal incapacities of the ruler than a sign of any long-term damage to the state, as can be demonstrated by how Ser Osmund Tyrell was able to defeat “both the Peakes and Manderlys” once the strength of the Reach was brought to bear.
The more significant departure is the decision by King Perceon III Gardener, who was persuaded by Lord Lorimar Peake to permanently end the feud through the extreme means of exiling one of the two parties, ensuring that the Manderlys’ “swelling power in the Reach” would be cut short by their exile. This case actually acts as a rather good answer to hypothetical questions as to what would have happened had either the Brackens or Blackwoods be somehow eliminated, because in the end, the removal of the Manderlys didn’t solve the larger problem of “over-mighty vassals” in the Reach. Instead, tipping the balance to the Peakes simply made them more powerful and more ambitious, leading them to become leading participants in the Dance of the Dragons, the political unrest of the False Dawn of Aegon III’s regency, and the Blackfyre Rebellions.
The second, related case we have to deal with is the case of the litigants. As we’ve seen above, the ongoing dispute over who the rightful heir to House Gardener was has been a major destabilizing force in Reach politics for the last three hundred years. And given how touchy medieval lords got about kings redistributing fiefdoms, I’m not surprised that we saw the Peakes and Oakhearts as major players during the Blackfyre Rebellions. My only real criticism from a world-building perspective is that the Florents are a bit too weak to be taken seriously as a real threat to Tyrell rule in the Reach, requiring of harsher treatment than the Peakes got after the Peake Uprising. Moreover, it’s surprising that all of the other litigants remained staunch Tyrell loyalists even after the death of Renly Baratheon – the Fossoways had more ties to House Tyrell than the Rowans did but still chose Stannis’ side, so why did the Oakhearts not seek advantage by doing the same?
Strengths and Weaknesses:
At the end of the day, however, the Reach’s internal divisions have only rarely been allowed to persist long enough to endanger the kingdom, and unlike the Riverlands I would not count disunity as their major weakness as a polity.
Rather, the Reach’s strength and weakness is the same thing – its own strength. When wielded skillfully by statesmen who understand its extents and limits, the power of the Reach has been used to build the strongest of the Seven Kingdoms and successfully defend it against the crab-bucket tendencies of the Great Game. But at the same time, the chivalric culture of the Reach often gets drunk on the legends of its might, encouraging over-ambitious over-extension. Before the coming of the Targaryens, this glory-seeking behavior saw the might of the Reach squandered in an attempt by Gyles III Gardener and his literal and spiritual successors to try to conquer the Stormlands. After, the same dream of universal empire would lead Mace Tyrell to risk everything in a Queen’s Gambit to win the Iron Throne itself.
And with the Tyrells called upon to be the workhorses of the fracturing Lannister/Tyrell alliance – fighting its battles at the Blackwater and Duskendale, besieging Dragonstone and Storm’s End, besieging Brightwater Keep and defending the Reach from Ironborn assault, defending Queen Margaery at King’s Landing and fighting off Aegon VI’s invasion – it’s only a matter of time before the Reach finds itself spread too thinly, trying to fight too many battles at once.
Superbia et ante ruinam exaltatur…
 Although Tyrion in AGOT mentions that they had “ten times as many freeriders and men-at-arms,” (adding up to 50,000 men and further calling into question the numbers here) which suggests that the Western Alliance’s army was all-cavalry. Perhaps the plan was to use mobility to try to deny the Targaryens a target for their dragons?
 Another, partial explanation, is that since House Hightower held back its men from the battle, that Mern IX was not fighting with the full strength of the Reach.
 Interestingly, we don’t know anything of the female line of House Gardener. Given how many sons, grandsons, brothers, cousins, and nephews were of military age by the Field of Fire, it’s highly unlikely that there were no daughters, grand-daughters, sisters, cousins, and nieces of the House of Gardener. One explanation is that these ladies were married into the various Houses who made a claim on Highgarden, as discussed below.